On a hot and humid evening in August 2022, five Kashmiri Pandit men, in the age group of 50 to 80 years, excitedly chitchatted over traditional Kashmiri kahwa tea in an airconditioned room at a residential house in Jammu, India. Accompanied by their respective wives, two of them, seemingly in their mid-seventies, had just returned from a 2-month pilgrimage-cum-holiday in their native Kashmir. Both gentlemen seemed to be over the moon and bubbling with wonderful stories of travel and experience, which they narrated excitedly, one after another. During their memorable sojourn in Kashmir, they had crisscrossed the heavenly valley of their ancestors and enjoyed extraordinary warmth and hospitality from the local Kashmiri populace belonging to the Muslim faith. One of them, the voluble one, had reportedly driven all the way from the western part of India where he has settled since his exodus from Kashmir in 1990. He sounded deeply impressed and appeared visibly amazed at numerous gestures of the out-of-way courtesy shown by the locals. He wondered:
‘I fail to understand who is fighting whom in Kashmir?’
Three other gentlemen responded gently: ‘Yes, exactly, who?’
Suddenly, he added: ‘By the way, what did our community gain by supporting and welcoming the removal of Article 370?’
The youngest of the group exclaimed gently: ‘Of course, nothing. Zilch!’
Turning towards him, the first person asked abruptly: ‘In that case then, whom would you vote for in the next general election?’
The youngest wasted no time in answering: ‘Of course, the current ruling party.’
Once again, other three nodded in agreement.
In this group of five, there was one who was visiting his home (from overseas) after nearly three years. He sat quietly through the entire 2-hour session, intently watching and listening to the other four, as they passionately exchanged their nostalgic stories of traditional hospitality and brotherhood experienced by them individually even in the present Kashmir. When they seemed to have quietened a little after having done enough talking, he asked them:
‘When it comes to Kashmir, what is that one word that comes to your mind?’
At first, the group seemingly struggled to understand the question. Thereupon, he reiterated it, with some simplification.
One of them said immediately: ‘Hospitality.’
Two others said: ‘Unique (referring to the Kashmiri culture).’
To back himself, one of them quickly narrated a recent story about how two young unknown Kashmiri Muslim boys had unreservedly volunteered to help his frail mother during a train journey in northern India, adding; ‘Our (Kashmiri) values are unique’, referring to both religious communities of Kashmir.
Interestingly, the ardent traveller, one who had been telling endless stories all this while, kept uttering sentences but failed to sum up his thoughts in one word.
Finally, someone amongst the group posed the question to the questioner himself.
‘Mother’, he replied.
All other affirmed with an instantaneous gentle head nod: “Yes, Our Maej Kasheer!”
The readers must note that, prior to their unfortunate exodus from Kashmir, in and around January 1990, Pandits of Kashmir — also known and referred to as Bhattas in their native Kashmir — would behold Kashmir as their Maej Kasheer (Mother Kashmir). Three decades ago, close to half a million of them were forced to flee their native home and live in exile in other parts of India and also spread out across the planet.
Over time, as they gradually assimilated with people belonging to other Hindu castes — generally through the marriage of their children — they began to call themselves Kashmiri Hindus, which not only helped them to thrive and assimilate easily with communities around the world but also greatly assisted the ruling political party of India in reaping broader and long-lasting political dividends — through vote at the ballot box from people belonging to all Hindu castes (and not only the Brahmins) — by politicising their persecuted Hindu status and, in particular, the reasons thereof.
Consciously or inadvertently, by choosing to be the unfortunate face of the ‘persecuted Hindu’ in the post-1947 India, Kashmiri Hindus, as they are called now, have turned out to be the ruling party’s trump card for scoring a possible resounding win in the forthcoming 2024 General Election. Despite anything else, they deserve the credit for having exemplified how Hindus can and must transcend the caste barrier. They are truly an inspiration for every other Indian Hindu to consciously break-down the historical walls of casteism in India and freely mingle with Hindus from all castes, without any stigma, reservation, bias or discrimination. Undoubtedly, they have shown that it is much more important to be a Hindu rather than to be a Pandit (Brahmin) or anything else. Will Indian Hindus follow them? At present, in terms of their nationalism, which has greatly heightened in the post-1990 era, no one in India can emulate or surpass a Kashmiri Hindu; as a matter of fact, they define the Indian nationalism.
The author of this piece has written two books on Kashmir and Kashmiri Pandits: (a) 22 Years — A Kashmir Story (2017), published by Vitasta Publishing, New Delhi, India; and (b) The Exiled Pandits of Kashmir — Will They Ever Return Home? (2020), published by Springer Nature’s Palgrave Macmillan. The remaining seven books also contain at least a section or a chapter on Kashmir. Sometimes, he wonders:
‘Most of those unfortunate people who were forced to flee from Kashmir three decades ago eventually turned out to be proud Kashmiri Hindus. What happened to those Pandits, where did they go? What made them to forsake their original identity for which their ancestors had strived and suffered for more than six centuries?
For the benefit of the readers, the definition of the term Pandit (or Pundit) is provided below:
- Dictionary (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pandit): a teacher or wise man; or a Hindu priest; or someone who plays a musical instrument very well.
- Merriam-Webster (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pundit): a wise or learned person (e.g., a teacher); or a person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner usually through the mass media (e.g., a critic).
… Bill Koul [15 Sept 2022, Perth, Western Australia]